Playgoers chime in with what’s right and what’s wrong at Oregon Shakespeare Festival
By Jim Flint for Ashland.news
In a cost-cutting measure to cope with declining attendance in 2022, the Oregon Shakespeare Festival announced Friday it has revamped its plans for 2023, trimming the length of its season and number of plays produced.
The company will produce two fewer live plays next season, which will run from April 18 to Oct. 15, about two weeks fewer on each end than originally planned.
OSF is not alone. From Broadway to nonprofit regional theaters to Broadway tours, companies are seeing between 30-50% of their pre-pandemic audiences return, as reported in American Theatre magazine and the New York Times. At 46%, OSF is on the high end of that scale.
“Our goal is to be conservative these next two seasons,” said David Schmitz, OSF executive director. “We want to be very intentional in looking at the entirety of our programming to identify ways to restructure how we develop, fundraise, market, and balance our business model.”
The two shows previously announced for 2023 but are now being cut are “Flex” by Candice Jones and “Yerma” by Federico Garcia Lorca.
“Flex” is about an all-Black girls’ basketball team in 1997, the year of WNBA’s inaugural season. “Yerma” tells the story of a childless woman living in Spain with a desperate desire for motherhood in an adaptation of Lorca’s work by Caridad Svich in which poetry and queer theatricality utilize songs, puppets, and storytelling.
What went into the decisions on what to keep and what to eliminate?
“The repertory drives the way we make decisions,” Schmitz said, “including the stacking of performances and all the resources — human and time — that go with it.”
The actors in one play must also suit the needs of another.
“In pulling back, we are also expanding the run of ‘Romeo and Juliet,’ directed by Nataki Garrett, which will run the entire season rather than close in July,” he said.
Schmitz says this season’s lower price structure will be maintained for 2023.
“Our commitment to providing accessible prices continues,” he said, “and we see this strategy as a critical path towards attracting both loyal and new audiences.”
The Thomas Theatre will be less-utilized in 2023, with only one play scheduled next season, from Aug 24 to Oct. 15. During the 2022 holiday season, Oregon Cabaret Theatre will use the Thomas for its production of “White Christmas.” Are there plans to explore similar arrangements in 2023 with other companies?
“We are looking at all our assets and trying to figure out how to utilize them in this time of recovery,” Schmitz said. “While there is nothing that can be announced as of now, we are examining all the possibilities.”
Playgoers in Ashland asked about their views on OSF’s decision to scale back the 2023 season and on the festival’s programming in general had a variety of comments.
“It was disappointing to learn that OSF will be further limiting the number of plays for next season,” said Carole Florian, a long-time patron with her husband, David.
She says the decision is understandable, considering the number of empty seats in the theaters.
She particularly enjoyed “Confederates” this season.
“It is not only brilliantly written and timely for so many reasons, but the acting and staging are simply terrific,” she said. “‘King John,’ too, has special resonance for our political times, and this marvelous production really made me think about gender and power in important new ways.”
She looks forward to seeing “Rent” on an OSF stage in 2023. “And I’m especially intrigued by the prospect of ‘Romeo and Juliet’ set on the West Coast.”
Jean Conger has been going to OSF plays for 25 years and attended all offerings in 2022, finding the season varied, with something for all ages and interests.
“I attended four of the plays twice,” she said.
Her suggestion for OSF? “Add a classic by playwrights such as Chekhov, Tennessee Williams or August Wilson.”
Dennis Kendig, an OSF patron for more than 20 years, attended no plays this year.
“One reason is that I cannot abide the political incantations that precede all performances,” he said. “I attend plays for the theatrical experience and the message of the playwright, not to endure the politics of a progressive artistic director.”
He feels the festival’s traditional audience doesn’t feel welcome.
“OSF traditionally attracted white, mid- to upper-class retirees from the West Coast,” he said. “They spent four-plus nights in town, saw five to six plays, and patronized high-end restaurants and local shops. The current play attendees are younger, spend only one to two nights in town, and eat at the (Ashland Food) Co-op. As currently operated, OSF is on its last legs.”
Robert Horton, a chamber volunteer and OSF playgoer for 15 years, believes the current offerings are not what the general public wants.
“I have had a couple people call the chamber, saying they have been regular playgoers in the past but do not like the play selection. Some are also afraid of COVID or worried about fires and smoke.”
David Runkel is a 21-year OSF patron and a former Ashland bed-and-breakfast owner. He attributes the decline in attendance in part to pandemic hangover. “Some are out of the habit of coming to Ashland every year to see excellent theater,” he said.
He notes that others have health concerns and worry about the outdoor Allen Elizabethan Theatre being closed due to smoke when they’re in town to see shows, and he acknowledged hearing comments about offerings being too political or “preachy.”
“I have seen two productions this year and will see others before the season ends,” he said. “I very much liked the one-actor August Wilson production.”
He believes a mix of offerings is the key to success for OSF.
“My recommendation to OSF as it forges ahead is not to forget its once loyal, long-standing audience members.”
Paul and Priscilla Arnold have been attending OSF plays for 18 years and saw most of the plays each season.
Paul Arnold believes part of the challenge this season with regard to attendance is the programming.
“It is challenging, but it is also off-putting,” he said. “OSF audiences are not afraid of challenging, but insulting?”
They skipped one play in 2022: “Revenge Song.”
“The reviews from trusted friends were dismal,” he said. “We lived through ‘Between Two Knees’ (2019) with great regret. Never again.”
Paul and Priscilla were happy with most of 2022’s offerings, but hope OSF returns to its traditional mix of offerings.
“As a long-time OSF attendee and lover of the institution, I would recommend getting back to the basics of what made OSF great in the first place,” he said.
“Shakespeare, duh! And great classics like Chekhov, O’Neill, and Williams, with plenty of room for new plays that speak to our universal condition — not super-specific stuff that speaks to a bare, PC, hyper-aggrieved minority. It simply violates the mission of OSF,” he said.
Following is the revamped schedule of live plays for 2023:
“Romeo and Juliet,” April 18 to Oct 15 at the Angus Bowmer Theatre.
“Rent,” April 19 to Oct. 14, at the Bowmer Theatre.
“Twelfth Night,” June 1 to Oct. 13 at the Allen Elizabethan theatre.
“The Three Musketeers,” May 31 to Oct. 14 at the Elizabethan Theatre.
“Where We Belong,” Aug. 24 to Oct. 15 at the Thomas Theatre.
“It’s Christmas, Carol!” November and December, at the Bowmer Theatre.
For updates, tickets, and more information, go to osfashland.org.
Reach writer Jim Flint at email@example.com.